In an effort to improve the well-being of Oklahoma children, families and our communities, we have to give Oklahoma mothers the support they need — including support for those dealing with mental health and substance abuse. That is why the University of Oklahoma is launching a study of the Parent Child-Assistance Program in partnership with our state’s child welfare and behavioral health agencies and philanthropic organizations concerned about this issue.
Today, Oklahoma outranks most states with women’s incarceration, substance use disorders, foster care entry rates and adverse childhood experiences. Oklahoma is the No. 1 incarcerator of women, and the majority of those incarcerations are drug related.
While motherhood is stressful under normal circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on mothers, causing major spikes in anxiety and depression. The most recent research shows 1 in 3 mothers who had babies at the beginning of the pandemic experienced postpartum depression, potentially triple pre-pandemic levels, and 1 in 5 had major symptoms of depression. Over the last several years, the world watched as mothers became stay-at-home parents, work-from-home employees and teachers/tech support for their children. This extra stress, anxiety and isolation all led to increased burnout, and today, mothers are experiencing depression and anxiety at a much higher level than before the pandemic.
As a researcher, I know that as mental health challenges rise, so do substance use disorders. Many people do not know how to cope with mental health challenges. They try to tough it out or cope using anything to lessen their depression, anxiety and feelings of despair. In addition, high rates of childhood trauma, exposure to violence and substance abuse while growing up can all lead to mental health challenges and substance use disorders in adulthood.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that we provide mothers who are struggling with consistent support and make a true impact to benefit their lives and the lives of their children. Through the Parent Child Assistance Program, pregnant and parenting women with substance use disorders will have access to community resources, services and long-term support that will help them build and maintain healthy, independent family lives for themselves and their children. This kind of support can be transformational in the lives of women and lead to significant public savings, including reductions in incarceration, foster care and future substance-exposed births.
If you are or know of a mother struggling with mental health or problematic substance use, I encourage you to ask for help — call a friend or family member, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Oklahoma, or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration National Helpline. Also, late this summer, OU will be enrolling mothers in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and the surrounding areas who are struggling with substance use during pregnancy in a study of the Parent-Child Assistance Program. To enroll, go to ou.edu/pcap or call 405-876-2095. No one has to fight this battle alone.
Dr. Erin Maher is associate professor of sociology, senior associate director for the University of Oklahoma’s Data Institute for Societal Challenge, and principal investigator for OU’s Parent-Child Assistance Program.